Karen Titman, the deputy head of Gateways School tells JLife about the most effective learning methods.
Chances are, from your own school days, you will have little or no memory of the volume of homework you did, the displays on the classroom walls, or the different teaching styles you experienced.
In recent years we have seen wide ranging changes to the British education system from the Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum for pre-school pupils to the A-level reforms. While many of these changes have been driven by feedback from the needs of employers and universities, less focus has been on what happens in the classroom to help children engage with their education and add value.
So what makes a difference in achievement? At Gateways we try to dispel some of the misconceptions and explore some of the methods shown to have the greatest impact…
What doesn’t work in the classroom?
Homework has been shown to have no effect on the overall achievement of primary school pupils. Instead of homework, reading allows pupils to develop language skills and recognise spelling patterns far better than hours of worksheet homework. The most time consuming and often controversial form of primary homework is the project. Often this encompasses a task in which the whole family become active participants, with the inevitable mad rush to meet the deadline. In high school the role of homework can be more positive in achievement outcomes, provided the tasks are focused in consolidation and are purposeful. Computerised homework tasks which provide instant feedback and challenge can also have a greater impact.
For ability grouping, commonly known as setting, research has shown that devising classes by ability can actually have a detrimental impact on most pupils, with only the most able marginally profiting from being in a class of others with similar ability. Therefore for the majority of pupils it is best to be taught in mixed ability classes. This also questions the choice of schools where the intake is based on academic tests.
So, what does work?
The biggest impact on pupil achievement is teachers’ collective efficacy. This is where teachers and pupils work in partnership, so they are able to build and develop the learning environment to share high goals. Teachers encourage pupils to aim high through evaluative thinking and curiosity for learning. This can be achieved in a nurturing environment where every teacher knows and has an understanding of the needs of every pupil; where collaborative work can take place across year groups and across subject disciplines; where going to school is still an adventure no matter how old you are, be you a pupil or teacher.
Setting high expectations and success criteria so that pupils are always aiming to achieve more is also effective. To help illustrate this, consider the way we can get addicted to computer games. How many of us keep returning to Candy Crush? Games are designed to provide us with immediate feedback on our current score, set us goals to reach the next level, which are achievable but require improving skills and knowledge to get there and a sense of achievement when we reach that goal before being set the next challenge. Emulating this in the classroom through setting high goals helps pupils to do well in all areas of school life.
Early intervention to help pupils with any form of learning difficulty such as dyslexia, dyscalculia or any other problem can help to build self-esteem and allow children to develop strategies to cope with the rigours of the classroom. It is often said that everyone has their own way of coping with learning and for those children for whom mainstream education is tough; identifying their specific learning style can make the difference between success and failure from an early age.
Classroom discussion can have a huge impact on learning. After all, talking is the first means of education we all experience as our parents teach us to talk and begin to give us instruction and encouragement. Focused class discussion can help with understanding, clarification of facts, testing out ideas and resolving misconceptions. It is this invaluable tool which cannot be delivered through simply reading notes or looking something up on the internet. Good, constructive and meaningful discussion cannot always take place where large class sizes exist. Class sizes of between 14 to 18 pupils can have quite a positive effect. Anybody who has studied A-levels or experienced tutorial groups at university will have witnessed this. How powerful would this environment be if applied to younger age groups?
In conclusion, as professor John Hattie, the director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, says: “When teachers see learning through the eyes of the student and when students see themselves as their own teacher then the collective efforts will reap rewards.”
For more information, visit Gatewaysschool.co.uk.